Roots In Rural America Thinning

Jun 18, 2012

Henning, Tennessee has a population of 945, and is about an hour north of Memphis. A century ago more than 60 percent of Americans lived in rural areas, like Henning. Today 16 percent do, and as more and more people flock to cities, what used to be the dominant America lifestyle is disappearing.

The most famous resident of Henning was the Pulitzer Prize-Winning author of Roots Alex Haley. Haley was born in 1921 in Ithaca, New York, where his father was studying agriculture, but he spent his childhood summers in a blue and white-trim wood house in Henning.

The house has since been turned into a museum, and on a recent Thursday afternoon, Program Director of the Alex Haley House Museum and Interpretive Center Beverly Johnson gave a tour to a friend of hers from high school and two of her friends from England. 

"That Bible supposedly belonged to Alex's grandmother," Johnson said as her visitors murmured that the book was beautiful. "I have never touched it ... it's very fragile."

A great deal of effort and care has been placed into making the house look the way it did when Haley was growing up in the 1920s. There are period pieces in every room—antique tables and chairs, gourds, an iron, a butter-churn, and a washboard. There is even an old phonograph in the music room.

Late in the tour, Johnson points to a black and white photo on the wall and an old woman in it.

“This is my great aunt. So, my great, great grandfather is Chicken George also,” Johnson said.

Now, if it has been a while since you’ve read Roots or seen the television mini-series, “Chicken George” was the nickname given to Alex Haley’s great, great grandfather, a slave who was a skilled cock-fighter, and it is this nickname that Johnson favors for her relative. It was Chicken George who brought the family in a wagon caravan to the Henning area, after the Civil War.

“Alex and I are cousins somewhere down the line, but we share the relationship starting at Chicken George,” Johnson said.

Haley was born at the very beginning of a period known as The Great Migration, when in response to segregation and violence, blacks moved out of the South and into cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West. By the time Haley began penning Roots, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, he’d spent years living in New York City, and most blacks in the U.S. lived in cities.

Even so, Haley by all accounts loved country living. After the success of Roots Haley bought not one, but two houses in rural Tennessee—a house he lived in as an adult in Norris, and the museum in Henning.

The tour ends outside where, at his request, Haley is buried. The Brits snap some pictures and Johnson and her friend start talking about the area. They both attended Ripley High School, moved away and lived in big cities, then returned to take care of aging relatives.

Johnson likes working at the museum. She’s related to Haley and she loves telling his story, but she doesn’t have the same affinity for Henning that he did.

“I really, really, really and truly miss Atlanta. I don’t miss the traffic, but there are so many things that cities have to offer.” Johnson said.